Monday, March 26, 2012

Catalunya, Cavas, and the Coast

In my absence of writing, I've actually been quite busy.
We went one day to visit a Cava (sparkling wine) vineyard and for an afternoon at Sitges (a city by the sea), through the program. The landscape near Codorniu was filled with rows of grape vines and a set of beautiful Mediterranean buildings.

This retired grape press is part of the press room-turned museum on the property of the Codorniu.

The family owned company has a very recent history for becoming strong with Cava production, and was previously better with regular wines.

We tasted two types of Cava, along with some little crackers to wash it down, inside one of the deep underground wine cellars.

Sitges is known as a weekend party city. It is apparently the 'gay capital' of Catalunya. But we were there during a calm Sunday, and found most of the obvious population to be tourists taking advantage of the sea.

We were lucky enough to be in town on the day of a car show. I simply adore antique cars! That fire truck is just precious.

Also, it was good to see the beach and some very detailed sand sculptures.

The following weekend a few friends and I took a guided tour to Girona, Pals, and the coastal town of Palafrugell. The trip was booked through, a helpful site for tours in a certain range of budgets. It isn't particularly cheap, but I found it worth the 80€ for the day.

Girona is a city of diverse culture, as it was a key dominance point in the peninsula during the middle ages and times of European territorial invasions.
 The Cathedral is fortified for invasion, with archer posts in one tower and flat walls on the exterior city walls.
 Often the interior sides of the archways entering the city have a small tribute to a Saint or other religious figure in these ancient cities.
 From the front, through which the people would enter, the Cathedral is a daunting and magnificent tribute of the city to God.
 As with all medievil towns I have visited, the streets of Girona, especially at the heart of the city, are tiny and wind around and climb with the many original buildings and the hills that were there when they were built. I am forever enchanted by the innocent peacefulness of such places, only disturbed the soft sounds of commerce on the next street over and the tourists ambling through.

 In Girona, there are a set of baths, named for the Arabs, although they never actually held control over such a North-Eastern part of Spain.

 Although it is not a well, many people seem to have sought wishes in this ante-chamber pool of the bath-house.

 In the old town squares, these protective archways are often found, used at one time perhaps for vendors to keep out of the elements, they are now a bit more empty and serve only as a beautiful reminder of what might have once been.
 The river in Girona divides the city. On one side is the old part of town and most of the commercial area, and the other is filled with apartment buildings and other modern establishments.
A fascinating piece of Spanish culture is seen here. Tobacco shops of course must promote their products in the windows, just as any other vendor does. But the unique case of tobacco in Spain is the requirement of labels. The label must read things like "Smoking can kill." And yet, many, many people continue to smoke throughout Spain. The bold labels are meant to curb the habit, but I am not sure if such tactics work with the Spanish, as all forms of advertising are quite bold. Many ads include nudity, violence, and other strong themes and no one seems perturbed.

The town of Pals is somewhere between Girona and the coast. It is a quaint little place that seems to be mad entirely of stone.

 We enjoyed walking through the streets and glimpsing these sweet places. Two years ago, while I was in France with Rana, I visited a village there that I could have sworn was home to fairies. I could swear this town is home to Gnomes or Dwarves!

 The tiny church in this town is hard to compare to the massive Cathedrals found in cities. But it is refreshing to see modesty, at times.
 From the edge of Pals, we could see the ocean, just past another distant village.
 I do not know why, but bridges above and tight streets feel magical, especially with the sunlight pouring down into the natural shadows.

Finally, we made it to Costa Brava and the sweet coastal town of Palafrugell!
 It was a gorgeous day to spend by the water, and I was thrilled to smell the fresh sea air again.
 I don't know why, but buildings by the ocean are very often white. It makes a lovely contrast against the strong blue of the Mediterranean though.
 We tasted some of the local cuisine. The paella looked delicious, but was made with pieces of fish cooked with the rice, so I could not taste it. My friends assured me it was as good as it looked.

Catalunya has far more to offer than Barcelona. There are so many wonderful natural and man-made sites to visit. I would encourage anyone to spend a little time exploring the further reaches of this fruitful region.

Friday, March 9, 2012


This weekend I took another trip to Cantabria to visit Rana and O. Friday I ate lunch with Rana's in-laws, a friendly and open bunch of people. They make me feel right at home, just like visiting my own aunts and uncles. O's parents, brother, and grandmother live together in a flat in Santander.

O and Tiki's father, Doro, is a friendly fellow that enjoys his drink and making other people drink. Within three minutes of entering his home, I had a drink in my hand. He is trying to learn English in order to communicate with Rana and I's parents. It is a bit like reading Dick and Jane books with a very heavy Spanish accent, but he gets the point across. It is also his self-proclaimed duty to ensure that everyone does everything correctly. Namely, he tried to teach me how to use a fork "the right way." I hold my fork the way I hold a pencil. Useful end down, handle between forefinger and thumb, and other end on top of hand. He wanted me to put the other end against my palm. Try writing or drawing like this, I dare you.

Doro's wife, Dori, is a cheerful and warm woman. She is the very example of a Spanish mother, always wanting to feed everyone. She is also the very example of a Spanish woman, always causing a fuss. While riding in O's car to visit sites on Saturday, she suddenly pulled out her perfume bottle and began spritzing it into the air. The remainder of the day, the two of them argued about it. But, she is a wonderful cook, patient when speaking to me (as my Spanish lacks almost as much as Doro's English), and means well with her actions.

Abuela (Doro's mother), is a reserved woman who enjoys going to bars and cafes with her friends. She and I try to talk, but her aged voice does not allow her to enunciate words in a way that I can understand, and my poor Spanish is difficult for her to understand, having never learned a second language. In the summer, she goes to her house in another town. I hope that by the end of the summer I will be better able to talk with her. Women of her longevity always have great amounts of knowledge to share.

 On Saturday, we drove up into a mountain in Cantabria. We enjoyed the sites of the winding road, speckled with tiny villages along the sides.
 It was cloudy on the way up, but the mountains are a site to behold all on their own. We drove mostly through a canyon, with nets placed on the cliff sides to keep falling rocks from landing on the road or anyone using it.

 In one town, we stopped to take a walk around. The small flows of water that come down from Spanish mountains are important for getting fresh water in the city. While in the US fresh water is hardly scarce, here in Spain it is a valuable and diminishing resource. Over the last few years, the country has suffered summer drought, and Cantabria, usually known for heavy rainfall, has also been quite dry.

 After our walk around one little town, we went to another village to enjoy some typical foods of the region. This noodle filled broth is made from the water used to cook garbanzo beans.
 Garbanzo beans, various sausages and meats, and boiled cabbage make up the regional food traditions in these mountain villages.
 The Spanish love meat. They eat cow, pig, sheep, goat, and yes, horses. This pasture was filled with mares, all pregnant with fowls.
Before leaving the mountain, we made one final stop at a cafe. The cafe is owned and operated by a pastry factory. These flaky and delicious desserts are called Corbatas, which in Spanish means bow-ties. A sweet filo-dough topped with almonds and an almond based, hard, frosting.

It is always enjoyable to visit my sister and her Spanish family. I am aware that most people do not even know where Santander is, let alone plan to visit it. But if you like folksy small towns it is lovely to visit. And the beach, while not as warm as Barcelona, is very beautiful.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Smells and Sounds

The aroma of fresh croissants and coffee, "SCREEEEEEECH! rrrrummmble-rrumble...." The sound of a train pulling into the metro stop. These two sensations together are what I smell and hear every morning just before I board. There are small cafes located inside of most metro stops, usually selling a slightly over priced version of anything you can find in a regular cafe.

Perfumes and colognes are caught in the air by a whisky breeze as a crowd bustles by,
"Hola" "Bon dìa" people say as they pass one another. As I walk from the metro, past the Arc de Triomf, and to the building where they hold my classes, I glimpse this daily.

Cigerettes and coffee waft through the doors, young men and women jabber in some combination of Catalan and Spanish. There are classmates of mine and other fellow students crowded at the door of the building. It is illegal to smoke indoors, but there´s nothing that says you can´t do it just outside.

Dry erase markers with a pungent smell, a slow speaking and irrate profesor mumbles on about Europe as students whisper loudly to one another. Classrooms are no more a quiet place to Spanish students than any other location.

The scent of a hot meal, mediterranean spices filling the air, "¿Sabes què es una manzana? ¿Sabes què es una servilleta?" my host sister asks insistantly. Dinner is served and delicious. And comes with a vocabulary quiz that could be on any Spanish word she knows, whether I do or not.

Beer and sweat and the smells of so many people in one place, music played so loud that your ears want to scream as the people next to you do in order to hold conversations. The occasional excursion to a bar can be enjoyable. Particularly with some good friends who also like to get loud and have a good time.

Fresh and clean lennon, silence. Shrowded in darkness and a thick blanket, finally, happily, I fall asleep.